Consumer Watch: Can You Profit From Online Networking?

Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham
It's not what you know, but who you know. A cliché, sure, but it's true. Whether you're pounding the pavement for a new job or looking to hire a reliable contract employee, the wider your social circle, the better your chances of hooking up with someone who can help you out. But what if you've called, e-mailed, met, followed up with, and all but sent singing telegrams to everyone you know on the planet, and you're still coming up empty?

If the folks at Ryze, LinkedIn, and other social networking sites have anything to say about it, your next step--or better yet, your first--will be to fire up your browser and start schmoozing. Fueled by a stagnant job market, online social networking is an idea that's generating some buzz among job seekers as well as other users. At least a dozen new networking sites with names such as ZeroDegrees.com, Tribe.net, and Spoke.com have cropped up in the past year alone.

Like Friendster--the breakout hit in social networking--the sites are based on the "six degrees of separation" principle (that's right, the same one that places actor Kevin Bacon at the center of humanity). But unlike Friendster, which is dedicated mostly to finding a date, many of the latest sites have a business focus.

Here's how it works. You join a site by creating a personal profile that includes whatever information about yourself you want to share with untold numbers of strangers--er, fellow members of the site. (None of the sites I examined list your contact information directly on the site without your permission, so your privacy is somewhat protected.)

The next step is to e-mail your friends and associates, inviting them to set up their own profiles. Each person who accepts your invitation to join then becomes a member of your personal network, and thus is one degree away from you.

Grow Your Network

As the members of your network solicit their own friends and colleagues to join, your network grows exponentially. And according to the theory at least, so do your chances of finding someone who can help you land your dream job, recommend a perfect candidate for an opening at your company, or point you toward a useful business contact. Once you find the right person or people, you can communicate with them through the network.

The essential benefit of networking sites, say advocates, is that they provide an inherent filtering system, since the only people invited to join your network are your trusted friends, their trusted friends, and so on. "It lets people build an international network without flying all over the globe," explains Adrian Scott, founder of pioneer site Ryze.com.

While all the sites are based on the same basic concept, they differ--often widely--in focus and in operation. To take full advantage of some sites, such as the executive-oriented LinkedIn.com, you must be invited by a current member or commit time to building your own personal network. Other sites let you see all members as soon as you join.

Each of the sites I looked at offered free memberships, although a few were vague about their plans to charge for future service, and some already charge a small fee--typically, about $10 a month--for service including more-advanced search features or an expanded member list. LinkedIn is considering a plan that would charge a finder's fee based on connections or hires made through the service.

If you're a highly organized, targeted job seeker or employer and know what you're looking for, LinkedIn may be the place to start expanding your network. Described by a competitor as "the country club of networking sites," the service has a straightforward, no-nonsense feel and a clear respect for users' privacy. To contact another member, you must send a request via the personal connections you share with that person; those connections can decide whether to forward or reject the request (anonymously if they choose).

Ryze.com, which calls itself a "business networking" site, takes a far more open, discussion-oriented approach. Each site member builds a personal home page--effectively an online résumé that may include the member's employment history, company affiliations, educational background, and even photos and written references. Each member's home page also includes a "guest book," where visitors are encouraged to leave messages and initiate introductions and discussions.

Ryze lets members easily browse its entire membership by name, company affiliation, industry, or title. Ryze supplies dozens of message boards and forums, with themes ranging from parents working at home to EBay enthusiasts.

Keep in mind that online social networking is a relative newbie to the Web. Many--if not most--networking sites, including LinkedIn and Friendster, were still in beta testing at press time; and in some cases, they were still searching for a reliable way to make money. Before you send your personal stats anywhere, read the site's privacy statement and user agreement (or terms of service).

There's little doubt that the Internet is an ideal networking tool. If you're careful about the sites you use and thoughtful about the connections you make, you might find that in your next job search, your browser is your best friend.

Anne Kandra is a contributing editor for PC World. You can e-mail her at consumerwatch@pcworld.com. Click here for previously published Consumer Watch columns.
  
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